How to Deal With Holiday Stress and Anxiety

Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson, RN, MSN


The holidays are a time to be merry and cheerful… or are they?

It’s certainly what many holiday-themed advertisements in the retail world lead us to believe, but most of us know on some level that that’s not exactly reality. 

No, it’s not just you—the holidays can be seriously stressful, and even sad, for a lot of people.

As soon as Halloween is over, many of us feel like we spend the next two full months in holiday mayhem mode. Downtime is quickly replaced with planning and trying to get everything done in time. And with the added pressure to be joyful about it all the time, it can sometimes feel like it’s just too much.

The holidays are also a time to reflect on our lives over the past year, which isn’t always so pleasant. We might think about what (or who) we lost over the past year, what we didn’t achieve or accomplish, or what we missed out on.

Trying to make sense of all these feelings—when we’re also distracted by a whirlwind of holiday-themed tasks and activities—can understandably be very difficult.

What Causes Stress Around the Holidays?

Everybody’s experience with the holiday season is different, but most of us can agree on a few of the following things that contribute to stress during this time:

High expectations. From picking the perfect gift, to decorating your home, to choosing a great looking holiday-themed outfit—the pressure to live up to certain expectations from people you know, from society in general, or that you place on yourself can be extremely daunting. Perfectionists tend to struggle with these things in particular.

Demanding schedules. All of a sudden, we find ourselves needing all of this extra time to get holiday-related tasks done—shopping, sending out cards, cooking, baking, decorating, making crafts with the kids, giving to charity, and more. And all of this is between our regularly scheduled tasks and activities. In addition, there are holiday events and gatherings to attend. Without enough time to relax and recharge during this time, it’s not uncommon to feel completely overwhelmed or even burnt out.

Money. The holidays are expensive, no doubt. For those who already struggle with money during any other time of the year, the holidays add a whole new level of financial stress. Many can’t afford to spend money on gifts and other holiday-related expenses that they might feel pressured to purchase, which could lead to feelings of embarrassment or shame.

Food and alcohol. People who struggle with disordered eating or eating disorders might feel anxious about attending holiday gatherings that involve food, wondering how they can resist temptation or how they might be judged by others for eating (or for not eating). It’s a similar story for those who struggle with drinking alcohol—they may worry about going overboard, trying to resist drinking altogether, or being pressured to drink when they’d rather not.

Social settings. Holiday-related events can be hard for people who struggle with social anxiety as they’re forced to make small talk among friends, relatives, coworkers, acquaintances, and even complete strangers. It can also be hard for those who feel obligated or pressured to spend time with loved ones they have problems being around or interacting with.

Loneliness. The holidays are seen as a time to be close with loved ones, which can bring out feelings of loneliness in people who experience physical or emotional distance in their relationships. It may be especially hard for people who’ve lost loved ones, ended relationships, or found themselves separated by some distance from others due to mismatched schedules or difficult logistics.

Parenting. Parents often feel pressured to give their kids the best holiday experience possible. From researching the best toys, to baking cookies with them, to helping them practice their part for the school play, to taking them to see Santa Claus… it can all contribute to parental burnout. And for parents who have to continue to work throughout the holidays while kids are home from school, the need for childcare can be another big stressor.

New goals. There’s one more big thing that contributes to holiday stress, which tends to hit on or just after January 1st. If you guessed New Year’s resolutions, you’re exactly right. As if dealing with our holiday hangover wasn’t difficult enough, come January, we face the pressure to instantly commit to getting our lives in order by setting new goals and starting new healthy habits. But truthfully, some of us find it hard enough just to survive and get through the day right after the holiday season.

When You Already Struggle with Your Mental Health

The holidays are stressful enough for the average person. But for people who struggle with their mental health, it can bring on a whole new set of challenges.

A survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness a few years ago reported that 64% of people with mental illness admitted that their conditions were worsened by the holiday season. Out of that 64%, 40% of participants reported that the holidays made their mental health conditions “somewhat worse” while the other 24% reported that their conditions were “a lot worse.”

One particular mental health condition that may be easy to overlook during the holidays is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is basically depression with a seasonal pattern. Given the lack of daylight during the build-up toward the holidays, people’s moods and energy levels can be seriously affected, which can impact the way they interact with others and live their everyday lives.

It’s important to keep in mind that it can be tricky to tell the difference between temporary feelings of stress or negativity during the holidays, and mental illness. The “holiday blues” are a universal term people use to describe holiday-related feelings of stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression, but these feelings typically subside and improve once the holiday season is over.

Despite the temporary nature of the holiday blues, it’s still important to stay aware of how it’s affecting you. Even short-term feelings of anxiety and depression can lead to more serious conditions. 

If you’re really struggling with your feelings during the holiday season (or any time of year), and it’s impacting your life, reach out to a mental health professional to get some help.

How to Cope With Holiday Stress

Most of us are bound to experience at least some stress during the holiday season, but there are a handful of things we can do to prevent it from getting seriously out of control. Consider the following holiday stress-busting strategies:

Use self-reflection to your advantage. Self-reflection is an opportunity to get to know yourself on a deeper level and understand your needs. Remember to be compassionate toward yourself, forgive yourself for anything you might be angry or frustrated about, and get honest about what your mind and body need to stay healthy.  

Set boundaries. After identifying your needs, you can use them to set healthy limits to help protect your time, energy, mental health, physical health, home, finances, and relationships. For instance, you can politely decline an invitation to a holiday gathering if you really need some time alone, or you can talk to your family members about spending a certain amount of money on each other’s gifts to avoid going into debt.

Make self-care a priority. Scheduling time for yourself into your calendar is important for your health and wellbeing—even if it’s just a few minutes here or there every day. It all adds up to benefit you in the long run. Do some light stretches, go for a short walk, journal about your feelings, call a friend, rest your head, or have a snack. These are all simple but powerful things you can do to take care of yourself.

Be realistic with your time. We’d love to do it all, but sometimes we just can’t—especially when we need to eat, sleep, work, and take good care of ourselves. Don’t overbook yourself. Don’t make commitments you know you can only tackle by burning the candle at both ends. If you’re struggling with determining how long something might take you, try researching it, breaking it down and planning it out, or asking a friend or family member what they think.

Embrace the planning and organizing process. Taking time to plan ahead and get organized is one way to help yourself feel like you’re in control of any particular situation. Aim to address one thing at a time. If it’s shopping for gifts, make your list and schedule the time to do it. If it’s baking, gather your recipes, take note of the ingredients you’ll need, and plan a time to go buy them from the grocery store.

Get outside and move your body. Stepping outside for at least 20 minutes, early on in the day, can help give you a mood boost while also working to regulate your circadian rhythm. Better yet, combine it with a leisurely or brisk walk to help get your blood pumping and body moving for an added benefit to your mental and physical health.

Limit your alcohol consumption. A drink might make you feel good at first, but since alcohol is a depressant, it can leave you feeling worse after those initial good feelings wear off. If you struggle with alcohol consumption, know your triggers, commit to exercising self-discipline when presented with the opportunity to drink, and consider asking a trusted friend or family member to help you stick to your limit.

Beware of any changes in your eating habits. It’s important to recognize when your feelings might be causing you to avoid food, or eat too much of it. Sometimes, it’s just a temporary reaction to stress that resolves once things get back to normal, but other times, it can point to something more serious like an eating disorder.

Take care of your sleep. It can be tempting to stay up late just to get a little extra “me time,” but making a habit out of it can wreak havoc on your mind and body in the long run. Try to limit working late or staring at screens too close to bedtime. Instead, do something that relaxes you and primes you for sleep.

Ask for help from friends and family. We can do so much more with help and support from others. Whether you need help decorating for the holidays or simply want to get something off your chest, it’s important to look toward the people you love and trust rather than trying to go it alone. 

Holiday Stress Can Be Managed, No Matter How Bad It Seems

With awareness and a little extra planning and effort, the holidays don’t have to feel so burdensome. Stress is often a given during this time of year, but it shouldn’t consume you or your life.

Remember that the holidays can bring out strong feelings in us all. If you’re having trouble with your feelings, or you find yourself engaging in unhealthy habits or behaviors, you may benefit from talking to a professional. Have a look through our directory to find a therapist who can help you out.

Elise Burley

Elise Burley is part of the editorial team and has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience on a variety health topics. Over the years, she has written for several health-related ecommerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not writing, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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